A Message from the President & CEO: 2023 Quarter 4

I first experienced the call, “Hey Coach” from Dr. Tom Songster in 1986.  Tom dedicated his life to providing our athletes with the highest quality sports experience. While he certainly earned his doctorate, Dr. Songster preferred to be called coach, for the inherent respect that came with that designation. Coach Songster was the Founding Director (as a volunteer) for Special Olympics Indiana and from 1968 to 1974 the led the development of that Program before Mrs. Shriver hand-picked him to serve as the Director of Sports and Recreation for Special Olympics International.

[For context, this is repeated from the initial message] As I reflect on 2023 and the importance of our coaches, I am taken back to when I started at Special Olympics Virginia in September of 1986 as the Northeast Section Director. My responsibilities included organizing what we called training schools, the equivalent of coaches’ clinics. I organized my very first “training school” at Marshall High School in Falls Church and had the good fortune of being able to include Coach Songster. I met Tom to prepare for the clinic and that was the first time he called me Coach. “Hey Coach,” he would say, (I am paraphrasing here) we need to make sure that these coaches we’re training understand who our athletes are and how to effectively communicate with and coach them. We need to make sure that they understand how important they are in the lives of our athletes, even if they’re only with them for an hour a week…they need to make it the best 60 minutes of the week.

Coach Songster passed away on December 22nd and while I am naturally sad, I am more grateful for having known Coach Songster. During Tom’s time at Special Olympics International, he oversaw a sports team responsible for building a worldwide network of volunteer coaches who deliver high-quality sports and training to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Keep in mind that when Coach Songster started in the 70’s, individuals with intellectual disabilities were most often seen for what they couldn’t do. Many were institutionalized at birth, for those in childhood who went to school they were put on Special Education buses and sent off to segregated, “center-based” schools completely excluded from mainstream education. Adults? Many lived in institutions, with no prospect of work or meaningful interaction with those without intellectual disabilities. Mrs. Shriver demanded that Coach Songster leverage sport to change how society viewed and treated people with intellectual disabilities.

  • Tom understood that to get into the schools he needed more than just sports, so he developed Sports Skills Guides written for all coaches but included academic components so that Special Education Teachers could incorporate Special Olympics into a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). A simple example was using bowling to support basic math education. Counting…start with 10 pins, subtraction…knock down 7 how many are left?
  • He knew he needed a strong sports team to help him, so over the years he assembled a team of people committed to sports.
  • He recruited Jim Santos to be the Director of Track and Field. Jim was the 1980 US Olympic Team and USATF Jumps Coach. His son Dallas also happened to be a Special Olympics athlete
  • Lee Todd was a US Ski Cross Country and Jeff Byrne, US Ski Alpine Skiing joined the team as director of those sports.
  • Steve Hocker, assistant basketball coach at Providence College, whose brother Tommy was a Special Olympics athlete became the first Director of Basketball, later followed by Annette Lynch, who was college basketball coach at Northwestern and Rhode Island. Annette later worked for Special Olympics Maryland.

Mrs. Shriver was adamant about giving every athlete an opportunity to compete in a way that offered them a chance to win. She also wanted the experience to be meaningful. While I was never in the immediate presence of Mrs. Shriver and Coach Songster during any of their many meetings/conversations, I do know they were intense. I remember observing Mrs. Shriver and Tom pacing back and forth at the annual conference in 1987 after the daylong meetings. I can imagine her saying, “Tom, fix the divisions and get those Programs to do it right! I don’t want to see a swimmer in the pool who finishes ½ a pool length behind the winner.” And by the way…no excuses, just fix it.

Tom also was a champion for having our athletes play by the rules but understood that to include athletes of all abilities some modifications were necessary, hence the Special Olympics Sports Rules first one book, then divided into two resulting in the Summer Sports Rules and Winter Sports Rules – a clear sign of progress. Again he couldn’t do this himself so he established the Sports Rules Committee. It’s weird to write this because it’s so basic but Tom wanted to maintain the integrity of all the sports we offered, he wanted athletes in competition uniforms, he wanted to play by the rules. When I first started there were still instances where clowns were present (for entertainment purposes) at events. Invariably the photo in the newspaper was an athlete running down the track next to a clown…not good. And face painting, it was not good…

75 nations attended the 1987 World Games, by the time Coach Songster retired there were over 200 countries with national Special Olympics Programs. He led teams that traveled to introduce Special Olympics in places like Russia and China, where individuals with intellectual disabilities were hidden in society. His influence is felt worldwide.

He was a champion for all athletes so when Special Olympics New Jersey pushed revising non-competitive developmental sports he listened and debated what was best. These weren’t always easy but ultimately, through persistence on the part of Marc Edenzon from SONJ, the Motor Activities Training Program was forged. Staying in New Jersey, Marc along with SONJ CEO Mike Higgins led efforts to enhance coach education and with Tom’s support organized a team that created our Principles of Coaching course.

Yes, there is more as I would like to honor and remember two other individuals who recently passed away. As I indicated, coach Songster, touched millions of coaches during his lifetime, most of whom he never met which would include Bob Golden. I knew Bob as Trevor Golden’s (Special Olympics Montgomery County athlete) dad, and the coach for one of Montgomery County’s Softball teams. Sadly, Bob also recently passed away and I attended his funeral in December. The funeral mass and celebration provided insight of how important Special Olympics was in Bob’s life. The group of young men who he coached over the years have bonded and extended their relationship from teammates on the field to friends off the field. There were upwards of 20 athletes who along with their parents and other coaches attended the funeral mass to honor and celebrate Bob who like Mrs. Shriver loved competition and its value for our athletes. While Coach Golden never met Dr. Songster, Coach Songster would have enjoyed watching Coach Golden’s team compete at our state tournament, the national invitational tournament, and the USA Games. I am sure they have already shared some stories in heaven and now when they encounter each other it’s with an endearing, respectful nod accompanied by a, “Hey Coach!”

And finally, on December 31st I learned that Senator Doug Peters passed away on December 30th. And while Senator Peters never coached Special Olympics athletes, he was a true champion for our athletes and proud grandparent of a current Special Olympics Maryland “Young” athlete and future competitor.  Senator Peters joined our Board of Directors in July 2019 and during his time as a member of the Board of Directors, he had a profoundly positive impact on our Program. I first met Senator Peters in his senate office in Annapolis and two points stand out from that conversation. First, his son and daughter-in-law were expecting their first child and through pre-natal care, they had learned that they would be parents of a boy with down syndrome. Senator Peters wanted to make sure that his grandson grew up with every opportunity to flourish and he felt like Special Olympics Maryland could contribute to achieving that objective, so he wanted to be a part of making that happen as a member of the Board. Second, when I spoke of our commitment to a more diverse Board, his response was, “I can help.”

Once on the Board, Senator Peters was all in. His son, daughter, and grandson moved to the lower shore and he was committed to finding Young Athletes programming for his grandson. Thanks to his commitment and commitment from his son and daughter-in-law a program was started. Senator Peters was also instrumental in recruiting new Board members including Paula Burr and Senator Mary Beth Carozza.

Special Olympics Maryland is better because of Douglas J.J. Peters. As we mourn his passing, I know that his efforts will have a lasting impact on current and future athletes. I also expect that Coach Songster and Coach Golden will encounter Senator Peters after which he too will greeted with a…”Hey Coach.”

Hey Coach Songster, Coach Golden and Coach Peters…Thank You! And to all who coach our Special Olympics Maryland athletes…a heartfelt “Hey Coach, Thank You!”